Dark Cathedrals and Daffodils in Winter (Sep-Dec 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Sheila Vamplin
September – December, 2004

I don’t often enter cathedrals on Friday mornings before 9 a.m. But it was an unusual Friday morning. A situation facing me seemed particularly hopeless. Feeling crushed by the sense that there was nowhere to turn, that there was nothing left to try, and that no one really understood, I went to a scheduled morning prayer service, hoping for encouragement.

I sat there in a huge empty, dark cathedral, waiting. Waiting for someone to show up, for someone to be there with me.

Oddly, no one showed up, not even the person in charge.

A year and a half later, in another church, I had another unusual experience. Ray Wright was my English teacher in high school. He was also my friend. Even after we parted geographically, eighteen years of sporadic letters kept us in touch.

My last visit with him occurred in the hallway of the church where I grew up. He walked with pain from cancer that had invaded his bones. He stopped and leaned on the wall, reciting to me a sonnet he had written contemplating his approaching death. Then we said good-bye.

Less than two months later, I attended his visitation and memorial service.

It was late November, the time of falling leaves, and it was the first time someone so close to me had died. I felt that a part of my heart had been ripped out. A part of it was, in fact, now in another place, and I knew that, with the years, more and more of my heart would leave this world.

For Christmas, my husband and I went to Croatia, where we lived when we first married and will live again someday. Our German shepherd, Ben, who lived there with Drazen’s parents, had recently survived a stroke that left him weakened and blind. Each time I walked him or played with him, I thought of his eventual death.

The knowledge that everyone I loved would eventually die touched me deeply. I began praying that God would always let me be on the right continent at the right time and that he would help me accept this new part of life. Especially I thought of my precious grandmother, who was eighty-seven years old. Even though her healthy habits and love for life gave us every reason to hope she would live to be one hundred, even thirteen more years would pass too quickly.

I didn’t know that ten days after my return from Europe, I would be awakened by a call telling me that Grandmother had died.

It was January, the time of bare trees and frozen ground. I myself felt frozen, as if something inside had turned to ice. My mind could not get around it. I had to force the thoughts: It is real. She is gone. She died. Her house will never have her in it again. I won’t hear her voice, see her face, hold her hand. Ever again.

Going to church after Grandmother’s death was the hardest thing to do. People had been told of her death. It was written on our class announcement sheet. It was announced in the bulletin and again during our assembly.

It was hard to be asked, “How are you?”—especially if it was asked in the same old normal tone of voice. It was clear that some people didn’t know about it and that others simply didn’t know how to respond.

I wished our country still had some way of letting mourners be clearly marked as mourners. I often wore black because it fit my heart, but it didn’t mean anything to anyone else. I wanted some symbol that would tell people, “Part of me has died. Don’t try to act as if life were normal. It isn’t.”

I wished for a prescribed period of time in which no one would expect me to smile or to go anywhere. Shopping and cooking became monumental tasks that I wasn’t often up to. I watered my plants only because I couldn’t watch them die, too. I felt that it would be better to wear sackcloth and ashes. Then people would know why I felt as I did. I wouldn’t have to explain it to them with my own words, with “prayer requests.”

Tears, numbness, sleepless nights. I did begin to teach my piano students again, and to see clients again. I still cried every time I went to the grocery store because I would see food after food that reminded me of my grandmother and her wonderful cooking.

Eventually that stopped, though. She had died on January 17. Almost a month later, I visited her house again, and her grave.

Moments of peace came. Sleep came. Some days I didn’t cry at all.

February 24. Another phone call. My cousin had ended her life the day before. Beautiful, sweet young Susanna. I still had an e-mail from her in my inbox that I had responded to just the week before but wanted to hang on to.

Few moments stand out in that period of time in which much is blunted and blurred in my mind. Her funeral does. The loss of such a sweet life, in such a tragic way, struck me with such force that I feared I might pass out. Or scream out: “This is not the way it’s supposed to be! God never meant for this to happen!”

In March, we received the news that an old friend from high school was attacked while delivering a pizza. He died from the brutal beating.

This is not the way it’s supposed to be. God never meant for this to happen.

On April 11, the phone rang before 6 a.m. A dear friend had died very unexpectedly during the night. She had given birth to a baby boy just five days before, leaving an anguished father to care for a tiny baby and two young daughters.

It was April. Springtime. The time of grass turning green, flowers blossoming, birds making nests in which to nurture new life. Yet Laura had died, leaving behind a tiny baby and two young daughters.

I will never forget a conversation with the four-year-old, when she talked about missing her mommy. I told her that my cousin and grandmother were in heaven, too, with her mommy. And that someday we would all get to be together in heaven. She smiled, hugged herself and said, “And then I can hug my mommy again!” Then her face turned thoughtful. “So what do we do to get to heaven? How do we get there?”

How do you explain to a four-year-old that a whole life stretches out before we will “get to heaven”? That the only way to get there is to live that whole long life, endure all the years of pain and missing loved ones, and eventually to die yourself?

For that matter, how can anyone at any age bear that thought? For a long time, I couldn’t.

It is true that my own longing for heaven has been sharpened, deepened, through the time spent in the valley of the shadow of death. I firmly believe that the joy to come will outdo the grief we feel here. That joy, however, is in the future. It doesn’t come to us. We must go to it. In that sense, it is not quite real.

In less than half a year, four people very close to me died, and an old friend died a brutal death. Living through those six months and the months of grief that followed, if my only hope had been that “someday” I would be with God and with them, I don’t know how I would have borne the pain.

Thanks be to God, as precious as the promise of heaven is, that wasn’t the only hope he provided.

You see, back in that cathedral, when the person in charge didn’t show up for morning prayer, someone else showed up. In that quiet, dark emptiness, when I finally got still and just opened myself to God, the words came to me: Over all, through all, and in all. And again, and again: Over all, through all, and in all. As I meditated on these words, I could not recall the chapter-and-verse context for them, but I knew they were a description of God.

Suddenly I knew that not only was God there with me, but that he was completely aware of everything about the situation, and he was involved in it in ways I could not begin to understand. I knew in that moment that despite my despair, and the complete lack of an answer to the situation, I could now hope. That, somehow, in his mysterious way, he was bringing about hope and light through the situation, working to overcome the darkness and despair.

Those words, and that reassurance, came to me again and again during the months of grieving. Over all, through all, and in all.

I learned to see God’s mysterious presence in the most unexpected places. Only days before Mr. Wright slipped into a coma and died, my chorus performed a requiem asking God to bless those who die with eternal peace, praying his Spirit to “moisten what is arid, heal what is hurt, flex what is rigid, fire what is frigid ….” I thought of Mr. Wright as we sang. He loved to sing. He would have loved this music. It was as if God had, through the singing of that music, prepared me with a last sweet remembrance of this dear friend and a prayer to get me through the months ahead.

God was present on the day of Grandmother’s death. Ever since Mr. Wright’s death, I had searched for my letters from him. I had searched every inch of my office. I had gone through everything in my bedroom in my parents’ house. I had scoured our house in Croatia and finally given up, sadly thinking the letters had been lost in all the moves. But the morning of Grandmother’s death, looking in a large cabinet she had given us, I found a bunch of letters held together by a blue rubber band … his letters.

God was there in the friend who attended my cousin’s funeral with me, even though we had not been in touch for fifteen years. He was in the heart of another friend who walked with me for hours through the botanic gardens, listening and caring. He gave her the wisdom to remind me—in the midst of my concern over the work I was neglecting—that “This is your job right now. To get through all this. This is enough work for now.”

God was in the daffodils that came out that spring; even though that particular spring my heart could not dance with them as it usually did, they came up out of the cold ground as a reminder that winter does not last forever.

Most of all, he was in the relationships I had been given with the precious ones who died. As much as I hated the pain and emptiness their deaths left behind, I knew that the only reason I felt empty was that I had been filled with love for them and from them. God had blessed me tremendously through these people, and it hurt to let go of the tangible part of that love.

Letting go of the tangible, though, taught me about the intangible. Dark, empty places are only dark and empty if we leave them too soon, as we often do, in fear or impatience. If we believe what God says about Himself, we know that he will “moisten what is arid, heal what is hurt, flex what is rigid, fire what is frigid.” When we feel most alone, he is often closest to us, doing invisible work in unimaginable ways.

As he does with daffodils all winter long in the dark dirt.

As he does in darkened cathedrals when no one comes.

Over all, through all, and in all. Thanks be to God.

Discussion

 

  • The article mentions that fear and impatience often cause us to shun dark and empty places in life. How can we help each other learn to stay in the emptiness until perfect love casts out the fear?
  • How can we help each other develop the patience it requires to wait on God?
  • To what extent does our technological society, which tends to disconnect us from the ways God works in the natural world, prevent us from understanding how God works within human hearts?
  • In the absence of meaningful cultural rituals for mourning, how might churches go about developing traditions and rituals to help members through this important and inevitable part of life?
  • Is it possible that we use our belief in resurrection as an escape from accepting the pain of death?
  • If so, can we fully appreciate the meaning of resurrection?
  • Can churches who do not observe Good Friday fully understand the joy of Easter Sunday?

Resources on Grief

Nicholas Wolterstorf, Lament for a Son

Gregory Floyd, A Grief Unveiled

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Claudia Jewett Jarratt, Helping Children Cope With Separation and Loss, Revised

Jill Brooke, Don’t Let Death Ruin Your Life: A Practical Guide to Reclaiming Happiness After the Death of a Loved OneNew Wineskins

Sheila VamplinSheila Vamplin counsels at Christ Community Health Services, teaches piano, and sings with the Rhodes Mastersingers Chorale. She and her husband, Drazen, and their two dogs, Tosca and Paolo, live in Memphis, Tennessee.

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About...

Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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